A father’s legacy in a ledger: Memories of family grocery store in Vancouver reveal little-known story of Chinese immigrants

March 28, 2015

By Douglas Quan, Vancouver Sun |

Tucked away in my father’s desk is a small collection of bound ledgers from his days running a grocery store with his father in this city’s west side.

He has no practical reason for holding on to these accounting books — he sold Granville Market in the tony Kerrisdale neighbourhood more than four decades ago.

But every now and then, my father, Keith, who is 81, will pull out the books, thumb through their yellowing pages, and run his finger down the columns to show my sister and I how Mister or Missus so-and-so (likely because their name landed on the obituary page) used to be a customer.

I only paid half-attention.

Lately though, I’ve become more curious about the ledgers, whose handwritten pages date from the 1950s through to the early 1970s. Why did dad hold on to them?

The ledgers are neatly arranged in columns by customer name, cash purchase, cheque received and so on. The one with Chinese handwriting, I learn, belonged to my grandfather Dick Quan.

I never met him and, embarrassingly, I never asked about him until now. I learned that, like so many other early Chinese who came to Canada or Gum San — Gold Mountain — he sacrificed a lot.

He arrived in Canada in 1917, at the age of 17, and worked at the Yee Lun Ark Kee Company, an import-export store, in Victoria. He returned to China periodically to see his family and, once, to marry.

But for a stretch of 13 years, beginning in 1937, when Dad was just three, he was unable to return to China, mostly because of the Second World War. “Father can’t send money or letter home, ” Dad says, “for few years he had no idea how we were, [whether we] got kill by the war or starved, because he could not send money.

In 1942, business slowed in Victoria, so Grandfather moved to Vancouver. He bought the Granville Market (then located just outside Kerrisdale) from a Japanese-Canadian who had to give up the store because of the internment.

After the Chinese Exclusion Act was revoked, Grandfather was finally able to sponsor Dad, his mom and his sister to come to Canada in 1950.

“It took five stops [on a Canadian Pacific flight] before we landed in Vancouver,” Dad says.

Dad briefly attended a school for new Canadians to learn basic English and then transferred to Point Grey high school. There were four other Chinese students: three houseboys and the daughter of the Chinese ambassador.

But because of the demands of the store, Dad had to drop out in Grade 8. “I learned my English by reading the Sun [newspaper], magazines and listen to the ‘talk’ radio, CKNW,” he says.

Running the store was a grind. Up at 6:15 a.m. to get to the wholesalers by 7 a.m. to pick up fresh flowers and produce.

The only time Dad remembers the store ever closing was on June 2, 1953, during Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. My grandfather apparently fretted that customers might think they were being disrespectful if they stayed open.

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